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Exploring the Comic Book Movie Part 1

By Owen Jones/Kater (2006-03-14)


For many comic book fans and even casual participants in the industry, the last ten years or so has been a rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills as dozens of fan favourite characters have made their way on to the big screen.

Hollywood has taken to the comic book movie with the fervour formerly reserved for action movies and chick flicks. In the here-and-now comic book movies mean bums on seats and the tills ringing with cold hard box office success in the colour green.

However there have been several hiccups on the way, over zealous individuals who see only the dollar sign at the end and forget about the history, the fans and the hard work that has gone into making some of these characters so special. So, given time, perspective and a touch of enthusiasm about the quality of movies being produced, let’s take a moderately biased look at how the spate of comic book movies came about, the current condition of the genre and where it goes next.

Ok there are two plausible starting places for the resurgence in popularity of the comic book movie, which I’ll get to, but let’s start by dispelling some of the myths about comic book movies. First off the studios have tried on several occasions to kick-start the comic book movie without making a dent. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing couldn’t be found in the early 80’s movie of the same name, instead what was a consistently brilliant and probing piece of work on paper turned into some schlock horror nonsense that was so far removed from the ideals of it’s origins as to be unrecognisable. A few years later we had the diabolical Howard the Duck and, with all due respect to the late, great Christopher Reeve, Superman IV was a bit of a non-starter to put it kindly. A Dolph Lundgren with dyed black hair attempted a turn as The Punisher in 1989, failing with monosyllabic incompetence. Captain America and the Fantastic Four, two of the largest ever comic book franchises, were ruined under a mishmash of poor acting and early 90’s cheese.

Arguably the turning point came in 1995 with Judge Dredd, not that the film was any good mind. Surprisingly Dredd sans helmet, which lead to a massive cry of disapproval from fans everywhere, looked a lot like Sylvester Stallone whose career was in a vertical nose-dive at the time. Ouch. The Italian Stallion couldn’t save the Judge, uttering the words ‘I am the law’ to empty cinemas. However there were some redeeming factors that suggested all was not lost. The budget was decently proportioned, the computer generated graphics were top quality for the time and it had a few ‘name’ actors. Although it sank better than the Titanic, Judge Dredd raised some interesting questions about what could be.

It would of course get worse before it got better, what more perfect view can there be to appreciate the stars than from the gutter. Studios flocked to the gutter with a vengeance, Barb Wire showed off Pamela Anderson’s brain cells to good effect, all silicon-enhanced two of them, Batman and Robin lead George Clooney to declare ‘I’ve killed Batman’ along with fans epitaphs for the Dark Knight such as ‘Holy series killer George’, ‘Dynamic Doo Doo’ and my all-time favourite ‘nippled armour ON MEN?’ With one of the big two almost out for the count and another Superman film seeming as likely as a Howard the Duck sequel, it was an uncertain period for comic book movies. Spawn tried but couldn’t recreate it’s comic book success on the big screen, with little known actor Michael Jay White suited up as everyone’s favourite hellspawn and John Leguizamo compulsively irritating as the Clown/Violator.The film had lead boots on from the moment it tried to swim for the green-hilled shore. Spawn had company though as someone decided, in the same year – hardly an auspicious twelve months of film-making was it, that basketball players can act. So we endured Shaquille O’Neal as Steel, a little known character who wasn’t 7ft tall, 350lbs and waddled almost as much as Howard the duck. Things were desperate and then it happened.

Many people when asked will say that X-Men kick-started the comic book movie back into prominence, but I beg to differ. Instead, after the atrocity that was Steel, both as a comic book movie and in it’s portrayal of an African-American hero, someone took notes and decided enough was enough. That someone was David Goyer and the film was Blade. Previously not paid much attention other than as a sometime character in the Spiderman cartoon, Blade was all about style. A full year before The Matrix made leather coats the article of clothing to be seen in, Wesley Snipes Blade, a black vampire hunter with dangerous intentions, took several familiar (pun intended :)) elements from contemporary cinema and weaved them into a whole different kind of bag. From the awesome soundtrack to the dark, stylised urban landscape Blade inhabited, this was what everyone wanted to see. Fights that were seemingly superhuman; the flashing hands and deadly feet of the martial artist, the eternal evil that required slaying, unforgiving set pieces and Kris Kristofferson. I mean if a film can make old Kris seem like a decent actor it’s done something right. His character, Whistler, was Blade’s Mister Miyagi, offering wisdom and shotgun shells in equal measure. Although the film was never going to win any awards artistically, it managed Best Villain and Best Fight Scene in the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, proving that if nothing else Blade had tapped into Generation X and the zen-level of cool.

Two years later a sequel followed under the imaginative moniker Blade 2 and with Bryan Singer finally showing the world his take on ‘realistic comic book movies’ in the form of X-Men, suddenly there was money to be made. So everyone rushed to buy up comic book franchises, big, small, unknown, obscene – there was blood in the water and all the studios wanted to get fed. More importantly though, the comic book industry needed the money.

The decline in sales of comic books during the mid-to-late 90’s pushed many publishers, even the major houses, too close to bankruptcy. It was arguably the leanest period the industry has been through and until Blade and X-Men, there seemed to be no salvation around the corner. So when the studios came knocking, cash in hand, there was little resistance to the idea of comics’ greatest superheroes and villains being put up in lights. A great part of this acceptance of the movie industry’s enthusiasm was undoubtedly money, there is no escaping that fact, but also that many of the franchises had rich, deep histories, endless stories to use and so much belief in the ability of storytelling. Unlike the Schwartzenegger action clones and wannabes, comic book characters offered depth and emotion. They offered complex scripts, compelling characters and a true sense of suspension of disbelief. This was our world but one without limitations on your imagination. Nor were there limitations on the film-maker anymore. Gone were the laughable suits and dire special effects of earlier years, in came believable claws, webs and villains with four robotic tentacles attached. Now the canvas was totally blank, allowing stories to be told that could never have been visually created before. Special effects were taken to an entirely new level and one film heightened the belief that comic book movies were Hollywood’s new favourite...

Owen Jones © 2005



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